With its growing list of reputational issues, it’s been a long time since anyone thought that the company formerly known as “Facebook” was just a tool to view family holiday snaps.
There’s been the use of its data in the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, a ruling by UN human rights investigators that hate speech published on the platform contributed to violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and concerns about the network’s use in human trafficking. More recently, the Facebook Papers, investigated by 17 news organisations and based on thousands of pages of internal company documents leaked by former employee Frances Haugen, have painted an even worse picture.
It’s gotten so bad The Wall Street Journal has created a handy summary page so you can keep up with the 15 separate stories out there – including allegations that the company knew its planned version of Instagram led to 3% of users self-harming.
Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is levelling a charge that “after failing to compete with new innovators, Facebook illegally bought or buried them when their popularity became an existential threat”.
When the story leaked that Facebook was thinking about rebranding, The Register carried out an hilarious poll of reader suggestions, which saw various villainous names pipped by the organised international crime syndicate from the Bond movies: Spectre.
We were all a bit slow. We really should have seen ‘Meta’ coming, from Mark Zuckerberg’s breathless excitement about the metaverse on the last earnings call and the announcement that the group intended to hire 10,000 employees to work on this new frontier.
If you haven’t watched ‘Zuck’s’ video launching Meta, I beg you to do so. Firstly, because it is a wonderful example of CEO hubris – magnificent folie de grandeur. It brought to mind a recent sniping LinkedIn post by one corporate PR who suggested CEO videos were the way forwards for truthful communication, cutting out all those irritating journalists and crusty columnists who get in the way of corporate messaging. Not on this evidence.
We watched our hero for over an hour (I struggled to find a fast forward button). The Peter Pan of the Nasdaq is seen playing – playing poker in space, checking out 3D street art, going surfing with his instructor etc. The pictures were so distracting you might not have listened to the words.
You should. Zuckerberg appears to have found a strong social conscience. "We plan to sell our devices at cost or subsidised to make them available to more people," adding insouciantly to the camera: "We’ll need to make sure we don’t lose too much money along the way, though". Mr. Zuckerberg is currently reported to be worth $122bn personally.
He went on to assure us that with the metaverse things would be different, and that “open standards, privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one.”
The Register was brutal. “haha-hahahaha-hahahaha. Ah, noble aspirations, but we've heard them all before,” it said, noting that in Zuckerberg's original ‘founder’s letter’, he had promised: “"We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services," concluding "Today you'll find that statement chilling out with 'Don't be evil' around the back of a Silicon Valley 7-Eleven.”
But perhaps we’re being unfair. There is an argument that with some 2 billion people on the planet checking their Facebook daily, it is rather hard for it not to influence everything – from the way we eat to the way we vote.
Media analyst, Ben Evans, argues: “When you connect two billion people, that includes all the bad people, and more importantly all of our own worst instincts, expressed and channelled in new ways. All social media companies are struggling with that realisation; Facebook now has forty thousand people working on this.”
That’s four times as many people as are about to be hired to work on the new tech frontier that has supposedly led the company to change its name.
What of that frontier? The second reason you should watch the video is that it does sketch out just how enormous the opportunities in the metaverse are.
Some of you over 30 may be asking, what is the metaverse? Broadly speaking, I would say there are actually two kinds of metaverse. There is the metaverse as a virtual world, in which users – represented by an avatar – can shop, socialise, and take part in leisure activities. This world very much already exists, and is hugely popular amongst teenagers and gamers. Meta has a key product already, the Oculus Quest VR headset.
For investors, the potential from the commercialisation of this existing metaverse is enormous. Tech Circus is hosting the world’s largest online metaverse event shortly, called Enter the Metaverse, which hopes to attract 4,000 participants. Co-Founder Myles McMorrow tells me: “The commercial opportunities in the metaverse are vast…with the ensuing opportunities and job creation being revolutionary for brands, businesses and creators.” This will come from major brands selling their products for customisation of avatars, in the form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). If your avatar is you, you’ll want it to wear your favourite brand of trainers.
There’s a lot of money to be made here, but there are limits to who wants to appear as a (cartoon-like) avatar and in what circumstances. We’re not all Peter Pan. As John Hante, CEO of Niantic, says: “Immersion in a 3D world might be an entertainment experience… But that’s not where you’ll spend the majority of your life. I don’t need to make a conference room look like a cartoon Tahiti.”
To be fair, Mark Zuckerberg also talks about the metaverse in a much broader way. “In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunities, no matter where you live.”
In this second broader, metaverse, Zuckerberg shows us consumers wearing “smart glasses” that permit “augmented reality”. Pop them on and dial in a hologram of your yoga coach for your daily workout etc. This technology does not exist yet. But Meta is working on it. As are others. This is much more exciting, with potentially enormous markets in entertainment, education, and design. In fact, any industry where people interact.
A technology as powerful as this should not be in the hands of one company, and I am really rather grateful that Microsoft and NVidia are also working furiously to develop their metaverse offerings. Niantic recently announced its own augmented reality glasses. As McMorrow says, “the prevailing attitude of the Web 3.0 community is one of a decentralised web.”
But having several companies involved is not enough. It doesn’t take a pair of “smart glasses” to see what might go wrong. We need political scrutiny and regulatory action at an early stage. That means now.
Christopher Walker is a writer on business and politics. He sat for several years on the asset allocation committee of a major asset manager.